Graven Images

June 19, 2007
A thought by James Berardinelli

In recent weeks, the rhetoric surrounding the high-def DVD format war has escalated to a new level. This is in part the result of two high-profile Internet "personalities" taking opposite sides. By throwing his full (and considerable) weight behind HD-DVD, Harry Knowles (of Ain't It Cool News) put Bill Hunt (of Digitalbits) in a position where he felt it necessary to respond - by suggesting that Blu-Ray would be the more likely victor. Having made their opinions known, these two have backed off the stage to let the battle cry be taken up by their adherents and detractors. And, in some forums, it has gotten really nasty.

Ultimately, there are three possible resolutions to this format war: (1) Blu-Ray woos Universal and wins outright, (2) HD-DVD uses lower pricing to pound Blu-Ray into submission, or (3) the war goes on until some other format arrives to make high def DVDs obsolete. My official stance is to counsel patience. Waiting to jump on either bandwagon will at worst get you a better deal and at best get you a seat at the winner's table. I expect both Sony and Toshiba to pull out all the stops in November; that's when the time may come to choose a side.

But this isn't a column about the pluses and minuses of going Blu-Ray or HD-DVD. I have written about those before and will write about them again. Instead, the purpose of this ReelThought is to discuss the intransigent attitudes of the most ardent supporters on both sides. What's going on out there in the trenches is nothing short of a religious holy war. Except, instead of Catholicism vs. Protestantism or Islam vs. Christianity, it's Blu-Ray vs. HD-DVD. Think I'm exaggerating? Take a look at the language used in some of the posts in any video forum. Those people take no prisoners and their rhetoric has the unmistakable ring of the call of the righteous.

Obviously, if you have purchased an HD-DVD player, you have a vested interest in seeing that format emerge victorious. The same is true for those who plunked down cash for a Blu-Ray player or a PS3. But a lot of people have more riding on this than their hard-earned dollars. Many of the most militant supporters have invested their egos in the struggle. They are no longer capable of seeing things rationally. Both HD-DVD and Blu-Ray have positive and negative qualities, yet to the pro-HD-DVD adherent, HD-DVD is without flaw and Blu-Ray is unworthy to be hooked up to anyone's system. On the other hand, die-hard Blu-Ray supporters see Sony as God and Toshiba as Satan.

We've seen this kind of thing before: VHS vs. Beta, Apple vs. PC, American cars vs. Japanese brands, and so forth. It always fascinates me to see how far people will go in these "wars" to win points for their sides. These days, with the relative anonymity of the Internet, things can get pretty heated. People refuse to admit not only that they could be wrong but that there might be some element of truth to the other side's position. It's a war of attrition where the winner takes all.

This isn't life and death. This isn't religion. Yet there are those who treat it as if it's more important than both. And I view that unwillingness to understand the position of another, that refusal to compromise, as a symptom of something potentially dangerous. If someone can become so entrenched when the subject is high def DVD formatting, what happens when the issue has real meaning?

Am I reaching in drawing these comparisons? Of course. But peruse some of those forums yourself and see if the vitriol doesn't leave you a little disturbed.

Of course, what needs to be said to conclude this discussion is how little the format war means to the majority of the DVD consumer base. High def DVD remains a niche format. The average consumer doesn't care about it, at least not yet. HDTV is just starting excite people; it will be a while before they start looking beyond the 45" flat screen TVs. So the format war may rage and the frontline soldiers may spew electronic bile, but most people don't care. In the war between HD-DVD and Blu-Ray, the current victor is indifference. But you'd never guess that when reading the responses to the positions taken by Harry Knowles and Bill Hunt.